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Spot the Difference: Most Common Ticks on Dogs

Tiny yet treacherous, nothing makes our skin crawl quite like the tick. Besides being a nuisance, ticks can transmit disease to pets and people. It is crucial for dog owners to learn how to identify different types of ticks and what disease risks they carry. Let’s review some of the most common types of ticks found on dogs, what to do if you find one, and tips for tick prevention.

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What are ticks?

Ticks are small, blood-sucking ectoparasites that belong to the arachnid class (related to spiders and mites). Similar to other arachnids, ticks have eight legs (except at the larval stage, when they have six). Ticks go through four life stages — egg, larva, nymph, and adult. Once a tick hatches from its egg, it requires a blood meal from a host to progress to the next. Hosts can include wildlife, pets, and people.

Ticks attach themselves to hosts by burrowing into the skin with special, barbed-like mouthparts. Once attached, a tick can remain feeding on a host for several days. While tick bites typically don’t hurt or are even felt at all (partially due to a numbing compound in their saliva), they are not without risk. Ticks can carry and transmit several diseases that can affect dogs and humans. Some of the most common tick-borne illnesses include Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and anaplasmosis.

Where are ticks found?

Ticks can be found in every state in the U.S., but their presence varies greatly by region. They are most common in damp, shady areas with lots of vegetation and potential hosts. The Northeast region of the U.S. has one of the largest tick populations due to its vast forests and high numbers of hosts like rodents and deer.

While ticks can be active year-round, spring and summer are often called tick season. As ticks become more active in warm weather and more people spend time outdoors this time of year, tick exposure risk increases. It’s not uncommon for dogs (and people) to pick up ticks while hiking or camping in the woods or sometimes just going for a walk in the park. Ticks can also be found in backyards, gardens, and just about anywhere with vegetation.

How do dogs get ticks?

Ticks find their way onto hosts by positioning themselves on the tips of grasses or other vegetation with outstretched limbs. They do this after sensing odors, heat, and vibrations in their environment that indicate a potential host nearby. When a host animal, like a dog, walks by, often stepping in the grass or stopping to sniff, the tick climbs on and attaches itself. This process is known as "questing."

How do I know if my dog has a tick?

Ticks are notoriously hard to find on dogs due to their small size. Adult ticks can range from the size of a sesame seed to an apple seed, while younger ticks can be as tiny as a poppy seed. As ticks feed, their bodies become engorged with blood and swell several times their original size. This is when pet owners most often notice them. During a feeding, ticks can resemble anything from a plump raisin to a sizable jellybean, depending on how long they’ve been attached and how much they’ve become engorged. They also tend to take on a gray, blue, or beige hue.

Inspect your dog for ticks by running your hands over your dog’s body, checking for any lumps or bumps. If your dog has a lot of fur, a flea comb may be helpful to separate the sections (but don’t use the comb to remove any ticks as it may leave pieces intact). Next, go over the smaller areas; ticks are known to hide between toes, paw pads, and skin folds, as well as underneath tails, behind ears, eyelids, and armpit or groin areas. Inspect any lumps or bumps closely, ticks can commonly be mistaken for skin tags or other growths.

Finding ticks on dogs can be tricky, even if you’re looking for them. They’re even more challenging to spot if you’re not looking, so performing routine "tick checks" on your dog (especially after being outdoors) is always a good idea.

How do I identify a tick?

While several types of ticks are found in the U.S., only about a handful are commonly found on dogs and can present a disease risk. It can be very difficult to positively identify a tick but here’s a brief guide that may help with tick identification for dogs.

American dog tick

American dog tick

The American dog tick, sometimes referred to simply as the dog tick, is a brown tick with light markings on its back that can have a circular or ornate pattern. It can resemble an apple seed, both in size and shape. American dog ticks can carry bacterial infections such as tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. They are found throughout the eastern portion of the U.S., east of the Rocky Mountains, and in some areas of the Pacific Coast.

Brown dog tick

Brown dog tick

The Brown dog tick is roughly the size of an apple seed. It has a slightly elongated body that is light brown or reddish-brown and may have lighter markings on its back. Brown dog ticks can be found throughout the U.S. but are most common in the warmer, southern states. They can be carriers for several diseases, most notably Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Unlike most other ticks, brown dog ticks can thrive indoors and are one of the most common types of ticks that can infest homes and kennels, earning them the nickname "kennel ticks."

Blacklegged tick

Black-legged tick or deer tick

The Blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick, has a light, reddish-brown body, dark legs, and a black crest or shield-like marking on its upper back. It’s one of the smallest ticks, with adults often no bigger than a sesame seed. Blacklegged ticks are found throughout the continental U.S. but are most common in the East. They can carry several diseases, including Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis.

Western blacklegged tick

Western black-legged tick

The Western blacklegged tick is nearly identical to the blacklegged tick (or deer tick) in appearance; however, it's primarily found on the Pacific Coast and select areas of Arizona, Utah, and Nevada. Like the blacklegged tick, the Western blacklegged tick can carry Lyme disease and anaplasmosis.

Lone star tick

Lone star tick

The lone star tick is one of the easiest ticks to identify. It is known for its brown color and single white spot on its back (although males, which are less commonly seen, can have multiple spots). Adult lone star ticks are slightly larger than a sesame seed and have a rounded body shape. They are found throughout the Southeast, parts of the Midwest, and some coastal areas of the Northeast. Lone star ticks can carry ehrlichiosis, tularemia, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Important
When identifying ticks, remember that during a feed, all ticks can increase in size and take on a gray or beige hue. Ticks can resemble anything from a plump raisin to a smooth, shiny jellybean, depending on how long they’ve been attached and how much they’ve become engorged.
tick engorgement timeline

What do I do if I find a tick on my dog?

If you find a tick on your dog, you’ll want to remove it as soon as possible by using a tick removal tool (a good thing to have in your pet first aid kit) or fine-tipped tweezers. To safely remove a tick, put on a pair of gloves and use the tick tool or tweezers to carefully grasp the tick as close to the head as possible and pull it straight out, ensuring the entire tick is removed. Don't crush or twist the tick as this can contribute to disease transmission. If any parts remain, like the head or mouthparts, you’ll want to contact your veterinarian.

It can take anywhere from a few hours to several days for disease transmission to occur when a tick is attached, so be vigilant and remove ticks as soon as possible. Once the tick is removed, place it in a jar or ziploc bag with isopropyl alcohol to preserve it (you may need to show it to your vet later). Cleanse the area of the tick bite with alcohol or a vet-approved antiseptic cleanser. You may want to contact your vet’s office for further guidance, especially if you live in an area with a high rate of tick-borne illnesses in dogs.

In the weeks following a tick bite, monitor your dog for any signs of infection, such as fever, lethargy, stiffness, swelling, bleeding, or bruising, and any changes to its eating or bathroom habits (like loss of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea). If your dog displays any symptoms, contact your veterinarian right away.

Tick prevention

While ticks can hitch a ride on many hosts, dogs can be especially vulnerable to these tiny invaders. Whether on a daily walk, sniffing their favorite patch of grass, or enjoying a sunbathing session in the backyard, dogs can pick up ticks in many ways. But there are some things we can do to lower our dogs’ risk of becoming a tick’s next meal.

Tips for tick prevention in dogs

  1. Know the risks. Tick populations and tick-borne disease risks can fluctuate due to seasonal tick activity and environmental conditions. Stay up-to-date on local risks by following your state health department. You can also evaluate your dog’s tick-borne disease risk through the Companion Animal Parasite Council’s (CAPC) interactive Parasite Prevalence Map.
  2. Talk to your veterinarian about tick preventatives. Numerous products are available that can help repel, kill, or prevent the attachment of ticks on dogs. Your veterinarian will recommend the best one based on your dog’s health, lifestyle, and risk factors.
  3. Use precautions outdoors. Keeping your dog leashed on walks and avoiding areas with lots of leaf litter or overgrown vegetation (prime tick territory) can help reduce the chances of your dog getting ticks. Performing post-walk “tick checks” and quickly removing ticks before they get a chance to feed can also drastically reduce the risk of transmitting tick-borne diseases.
  4. Tick-proof your yard. Ticks love tall grasses, shrubs, and moist environments like leaf litter and brush piles. Keep ticks at bay with regular lawn maintenance, and consider a pet-safe pesticide treatment if needed.
  5. Consider vaccinating your dog for Lyme disease. Especially if you live in a high-risk area. Talk to your vet about your dog's risks and whether the Lyme disease vaccine is right for them.

Ticks are never a fun topic and something that no pet owner wants to deal with. But by staying informed of the risks, taking precautions, and being prepared to identify and remove a tick if necessary, we can reduce our pets’ risks of tick-borne diseases.

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